Friday, January 26, 2018

Louis Wain's Cats

Louis Wain (English 1860-1939) was an artist who loved to paint cats, and he painted them in a variety of styles. When viewed in the sequence below, his cat pictures seem to reveal a person losing his grip on reality.

Do Louis Wain's cat pictures reflect a brain suffering from mental illness? People have speculated for years:
"Wain's schizophrenia may have been precipitated by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which is excreted by cats in their feces." —Nietzsche Girard Mimetism 
"Wain may have been suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder" —Scientific American
In fact, most of Wain's images are not dated, and he produced conventional cat pictures alongside highly patterned ones throughout his career. The sequence of images from cute to bizarre was arranged by psychologists to support their theories.
"The belief that his abstract drawings demonstrate the progressive deterioration of his mental state is quite likely a falsehood – the result of a claim made in a book called Psychotic Art that was published in the 1960s. All art should be considered as an expression of the artist and Wain’s progression into psychedelia is just one aspect of his creative identity." —Illustration Chronicles
It is known that Wain's life encompassed much unhappiness and anxiety, but without more concrete diagnostic information, we'll probably never really know exactly why he painted cats the way he did. Psychologists and art historians who infer mental states purely from artwork may be dancing on thin ice.


A Colonel of Truth said...

9 lives haveth kitty cat.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

I had first encountered Wain's cats at a psychiatry studies department of the university I went to. There were just six of them on the poster, but all of them appear in the larger set posted on this page, and they were arranged in the same order: the more realistic at the top, the baroque patterns on the bottom. And yes, the poster was captioned as illustrating schizophrenia progression. It even had brief snippets explaining that this cat represented anxiety, and that one showed disruption of mental processes, and such.

Only later I found out that the "progression" did not exist, some of the pattern dated before some of the more realistic works, and Wain's overall body of work does not show anything nearly as convenient for a psychiatrist's theories. Bad science, or at the very least bad teaching.

Unknown said...

I agree with the sentiment of "skating on thin ice." For my ten-year high school reunion we were invited to submit a dossier about our lives since high school. I had recently had one of my collages published on the outside back cover of "Picture Magazine," an art magazine out of Santa Fe in the late '70's - early '80's. I was thrilled about my accomplishment and decided to submit a copy of my black and white collage, entitled "I'm falling" in place of a written dossier to show rather than tell my classmates what I was up to. I explained that the collage was published art and I figured they would get that was a big deal. The collage was a boxer falling down the front of a sky scraper. It was not a self-portrait, at most, a tongue-in-cheek description of certain moments in an artist's life. When my collage wasn't included with the other students' dossiers, I heard through the grapevine, the reunion committee decided I was suicidal, or at least deranged, to have created such art. I heard they had spoken to a psychologist who corroborated their suspicions. I never received a call from any of my classmates to check on my state of mind or "intervene." So much for caring classmates!

Amanda said...

Looks like an artist experimenting to me.

David Teter said...

The bottom six are based on fractal imagery. So does that mean he was losing his grip on reality or only that he discovered fractals at the time?

Unknown said...
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Rowleyj said...

This post fascinated me. I work as a Psychologist, and I can recall seeing these images in the text books of my undergraduate and graduate classes. From what I can recall, this being several decades ago, it was usually in the context of relationship between mental illness and creativity or a visual support for the deterioration of the mind. Really interesting to hear the context that these were not necessarily presented in chronological order.

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